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Welcome to our Shabbos Table!

We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.

Please share them at your own Shabbos table, and send us your most interesting responses. A selection of the best will be posted on the website, and eventually, included in a book. To respond, click on "Click here to respond" or email us at
responses@ourtable.org.

Parshas Shmos #1

Living in Two Worlds

“He saw an Egyptian man hitting a Hebrew man, of his brothers. He turned [and looked] both ways, and he saw that there was no man [present], so he hit the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Shmos 2:11-12).

Amram and Yocheved’s infant son was born under the shadow of Pharaoh’s decree against all newborn baby boys: “Every boy that is born, throw him into the river” (Shmos 1:22). Hoping to save her baby, Yocheved set him afloat in a basket on the Nile. He was rescued by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter Basyah, who adopted him and raised him as her own son (ibid. 2:2-6). Not only was Moshe, future leader and liberator of the Jewish people, spared from Pharaoh’s decree, he was raised in Pharaoh’s own palace as a royal Egyptian prince!

Despite his privileged upbringing, Moshe’s Jewish identity was strong. When he grew up, “he went out to his brothers, and he saw their suffering,” arriving just in time to witness an act of brutality. “He saw an Egyptian man hitting a Hebrew man, of his brothers. He turned [and looked] both ways, and he saw that there was no man [present], so he hit the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.”

Moshe’s Choice

Moshe’s response to this incident literally changed his life. After he killed the oppressive Egyptian taskmaster, he was forced to flee his comfortable life in Egypt (ibid. 3:15). This began the journey which would eventually bring him back to Egypt not as Pharaoh’s favored grandson, but as Hashem’s messenger to free the Jews. The wording of the passuk suggests an insight into Moshe’s thoughts at the time.

On the one hand, Moshe was an Egyptian prince. On the other, in his earliest years he had been raised by Yocheved (ibid. 7-9), who taught him that no matter where he was, he was a Jew. Where should his loyalties lie – with the Egyptian overlords, or with the Jewish slaves? Fidelity to one aspect of his identity meant betrayal of the other.

Moshe “turned [and looked] both ways, and he saw that there was no man.” Understood simply, this means that he looked to see if the coast was clear before taking action. I have also heard these words explained as a reference to the conflict between his two identities; who was he? Moshe had to look inside himself “both ways,” and decide where he stood. Was he a Jew, or an Egyptian? If he defended the slave, it meant that he saw himself above all as a Jew. If he condoned the beating and did nothing, it meant that he was an Egyptian first and foremost. If Moshe could not decide who he really was, “he saw that there was no man” – he had no identity.

It did not take Moshe long to decide. At great personal risk, he saved his fellow Jew, effectively discarding the Egyptian in him and “burying” it forever. With this act, Moshe made the irrevocable decision that he was and always would be a Jew.

Throughout our history, Jews everywhere have faced a similar conflict. Are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews? Are we English, Canadian, South African or Israeli first, and Jews only second? Or are we Jews, who happen to reside in a country which has allowed us a place to live and thrive?

Question for Discussion:

Much like Moshe in ancient Egypt, Jews in the modern world face great tension between two “identities.” When were you faced with a dilemma between secular and Jewish values, and what did you decide?

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Response:

Avi, orginally from Toronto and Dallas, now an engineering student at Tel Aviv University: I was raised in an old-school secular Russian family. Decency and propriety, clean language, respect for elders, and more were all expected and rigorously enforced. In addition, I attended religious Jewish schools in Toronto until my bar mitzvah, where these values, along with the standards taught by the Torah, were part of my daily life. After my bar mitzvah, my parents moved to Dallas, Texas, to a neighborhood that was about twenty-five percent Jewish. They saw no reason to pay for me to continue in a Jewish school, when I could attend the second highest ranking public school in the country for free.

The culture shock was enormous. Until then, I had gone to a frum, all-boys school. My television viewing time was strictly limited, with only educational programs allowed. Now I was in eighth grade in a co-ed public school, with kids who were watching x-rated movies. I felt like I had been deposited in a zoo, where I could choose between being an animal exhibit, or a zookeeper. I was not interested in becoming an animal, and I reacted very strongly.

Ironically, when I was in yeshivah day school, Torah and mitzvos were strictly for the classroom. Now, in the space of six months, I was going to public school wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis. I was shomer negiah, and tried to daven regularly. I began bringing along my Tanach and printouts of whatever pages of Gemara I had learned, to study and review on my own between classes.

All this did not make me very popular. In ninth grade, a Jewish girl in my class told me that she hated me; her rabbi had said that she did not need to do anything “Jewish” to be a good Jew, and I made her feel guilty. Most of the other Jewish kids were also not sympathetic, and my friends were, for the most part, religious Christians, Orientals, and even a few atheists. Sad to say, these classmates were more decent and respectful.

Those years in school were very difficult, and very lonely. As the only student who wore a kippah, I was once approached to ask the principal to permit wearing baseball caps to school, to make it easier for other Jewish students. I refused, saying that if anyone was having problems with wearing a kippah, he should come to me. Another time, I argued – successfully – against an entire civics class, that religion has a place in politics and public life.

In my senior year, I was chatting online with a girl whom I had admired for years. She let me know that she did not have a date for the senior prom, and it was pretty obvious that if I asked her, she would accept. The struggle was enormous. For a full five minutes I sat there, feeling an almost physical sensation pulling me to jump at the opportunity.

Baruch Hashem, I realized in the end that as tempting as it was, it went against the very fiber of everything I stood for and believed in, and the way my parents had raised me. The prom and what it represented were not right for any Jew, religious or not. As Jews, we need to be guided by religious beliefs, not by secular norms. For me, going to the prom would have meant joining the zoo, and that was not for me.

Parshas Shmos #2

The Thornbush

“Hashem’s angel appeared to him in a blaze of fire, from within a thornbush. He saw, and behold, the thornbush was burning, but the thornbush was not consumed [by the flames]” (Shmos 3:2).

Many years had passed since Moshe fled Pharaoh’s wrath in Egypt. He was in Midyan, married to Yisro’s daughter and tending his father-in-law’s flocks. The Jews in Egypt were still enslaved, but the end of their suffering was rapidly approaching.

One fateful day, Moshe’s duties brought him to a site of special sanctity. He was at Mount Sinai, where he would one day give Hashem’s Torah to the Jewish people.

It was here that Moshe received his first prophecy: “Hashem’s angel appeared to him in a blaze of fire, from within a thornbush. He saw, and behold, the thornbush was burning, but the thornbush was not consumed [by the flames]…and G-d called to him from within the thornbush, and He said, Moshe, Moshe… And now, go and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take out My nation, the children of Israel, from Egypt.” The time had come at last for Moshe to return to Egypt and assume the role Hashem had designated for him.

The entire world belongs to Hashem. He could have revealed Himself to Moshe from a massive redwood or mighty oak, or in any other location more suited to His majesty and power. Why a humble thornbush?

Chazal explain the significance of the bush. Hashem appeared to Moshe specifically in a thornbush, because, Hashem said, “I am with him in [times of] sorrow” (Tehillim 91:15). He shared in Israel’s anguish; because they were suffering the misery of Egyptian bondage, Hashem too revealed Himself in a cramped, lowly thornbush (Midrash Aggadah, Shmos 3:2; Rashi ibid.)

Sympathy and Empathy

Hashem not only sympathized with the enslaved nation, He empathized with them. There is a very distinct difference between the two. Sympathy means feeling for someone, and empathy means feeling with them. Sympathy is compassion or commiseration with another person’s plight. Empathy is putting ourselves in his shoes, and feeling what he feels. Empathy, a step beyond sympathy, comes from having “been there,” and knowing what it’s like.

An incident in my own home one erev Shabbos highlighted the difference. My son must have been one of the last to shower that day, because there was no hot water left for him. He complained that the water was “freezing,” and I sympathized with him – a cold shower really is no fun. Then, when I took the next shower and saw just how “freezing” the water really was, I understood with great clarity what empathy – as opposed to sympathy – really means!

The key to empathy is “I am with him in [times of] sorrow,” truly experiencing another’s pain.

Question for discussion:

Hashem Himself teaches us by example how to empathize with others. How can we can be more sensitive to the challenges experienced by those around us?

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Response:

My wife Miryam told a story I had once related, adding some important insights. I was in shul for minchah one day. In the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, a man walked in the back entrance and asked, very loudly, “Where is minchah?” No one responded – we were all davening Shemoneh Esrei, and couldn’t talk. He repeated his question again, louder this time. Annoyed by what appeared to be a silly disruption in the back of the shul, people began shushing him, none too gently. Couldn’t this man see for himself that he had walked into a minchah minyan, already in progress?

Sadly – he could not. “Yaakov” was totally blind. He lived fifteen minutes away from the shul and insisted on walking there by himself three times a day, to daven with a minyan. He obviously was unable to see that the men were already davening, and because he had arrived during the silent Shemoneh Esrei, he also could not hear them. He had meant no harm; he really only wanted to know where he could daven minchah.

Miryam pointed out that we can heighten our sensitivity to the needs of others by not rushing to judge them. Can we ever truly, fully understand what someone else is going through? Not really. In Yaakov’s case, before the men knew his story, his behavior seemed inexcusable. Once they found out, there were no more questions. In addition, while we should always try to be empathetic, we can never assume that we know exactly what someone else is feeling or experiencing. We can try our best to understand, but should never say, “I know just how you feel.” How can we?